‘Why Are You Asking?’ Reporting the Black Santa Story

December 18, 2017

In a previous blog I discussed my research into an ugly episode of racial hatred that tainted the 2016 holiday season. The Mall of America hired its first African-American Santa Claus, an Army veteran named Larry Jefferson. A local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story about it on Dec. 1. Later that night an editorial page editor for the Tribune, Scott Gillespie, tweeted: "Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America's first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!" Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with headlines such as "Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America's First Black Santa Thanks to Racism" (Jezebel) and "Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America" (Huffington Post).

George Takei responded the next day via Twitter: "Watching people meltdown over a black Santa in the Mall of America. ‘Santa is white!' Well, in our internment camp he was Asian. So there." It was also mocked by Trevor Noah on Comedy Central, and elsewhere.

Yet every major news outlet missed the real story. They failed to check facts. My research (including an interview with Gillespie) eventually revealed that the racial incident never actually occurred, and that--despite public opinion and nearly two million news articles to the contrary--the Star Tribune did not receive a single hate-filled message in the comments section of its story on Jefferson. What happened was the product of a series of misunderstandings and a lack of fact-checking, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age (for a detailed look at the case see my CFI blog "The True, Heartwarming Story of the Mall of America's Black Santa.")

I've been writing about journalism errors and media literacy for two decades (including in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), and usually there's relatively little pushback (except, perhaps, from journalists reluctant to acknowledge errors). However a curious part of this story was the criticism I received on social media for even researching it. Perhaps the best example was when I responded to a post about the initial story on a fellow skeptic's Facebook page. She and all of her friends on the thread took the erroneous news story at face value (which didn't surprise me, as virtually everyone did) but what did surprise me was the suggestion that trying to uncover the truth was unseemly or even "a distraction tactic."

One person wrote, "I actually can't believe that a self proclaimed skeptic is even having this argument in a country that just elected Donald Trump. It's not skepticism when it disregards the proven fact that a great deal of the country, enough to elect a president, are straight up racist." Of course I never questioned whether many or most Americans were racist. My question was very specific, clear, and about the factual basis for this one specific incident. Neither Trump's election nor the existence of racism in America are relevant to whether or not the Tribune had to shut down its comments section in response to a deluge of hatred against a black Santa.

The ‘Distraction' Tactic

One person wrote that me asking how many people objected to the black Santa was "a distraction tactic--now we can talk about how most people are not racist and change the subject from racism." I was stunned. I had no idea that asking if anyone knew how many people complained would or could be construed as somehow trying to distract people (from what to what?). I replied, "Trying to quantify and understand an issue is not a ‘distraction tactic.' I have no interest in distracting anyone from anything.'" No one--and certainly not me--was suggesting that a certain number of racists upset over a black Santa was okay or acceptable. I never suggested or implied that if it was "only" ten or twenty or a hundred, that everyone should be fine with it.

But knowing the scope of the issue does help us understand the problem: Is it really irrelevant whether there were zero, ten, or ten thousand racist commenters? If Trump can be widely (and rightly) criticized for exaggerating the crowd at his inauguration speech as "the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration--period" when in fact it was several orders of magnitude smaller, why is asking how many people complained about a mall Santa so beyond the pale?

Usually when I encounter claims of investigating being a distraction in my research it was itself a distraction tactic, an attempt to head off inquiry that might debunk a claim or show that some assumption or conclusion was made in error--not unlike the Wizard of Oz pleading for Dorothy and her gang not to look behind the curtain. ("Why are you asking questions about where I suddenly got this important UFO-related document?" or "Asking for evidence of my faith healer's miracle healings is just a distraction from his holy mission" doesn't deter any journalist or skeptic worth his or her salt.) If a claim is valid and factual, there's no reason why anyone would object to confirming that; as Thomas Paine noted, "It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry."

I tried to remember where else I'd heard the phrase used, when someone who was asked about something called the questions a "distraction." Finally I realized where that tactic had become common: In the Trump administration. When Donald Trump was asked about a leaked Access Hollywood recording of him bragging about groping women sexually, he dismissed the questions--and indeed the entire issue--as "nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we're facing today."

Similarly, when Vice-President Pence was asked in January 2017 about whether the Trump campaign had any contacts with Russia during the campaign, he replied, "This is all a distraction, and it's all part of a narrative to delegitimize the election." Others in the Trump administration (including White House spokespeople) have repeatedly waved off journalists' questions as distractions as well.

This is not particularly surprising, but it was odd to see some of my most virulent anti-Trump friends (and Facebook Friends) using and embracing exactly the same tactics Trump does to discourage questions.

There is one important difference: In my judgment Trump and his surrogates use the tactic cynically (knowing full well that the issues and questions being asked are legitimate), while those who criticized me were using the tactic sincerely; being charitable, I have no reason to think that they realized that the black Santa story and reportage had been widely (if not universally) misunderstood. But the intention and effect were the same: An attempt to discourage someone from looking beyond the surface to see what's really going on, and attempt to separate truth from fact.

Importance of Due Diligence

A recent news story highlights the value and importance of bringing at least some skepticism to claims: Recently a woman approached reporters at The Washington Post with a potentially explosive story: that embattled Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore had impregnated her as a teenager and forced her to have an abortion. This would of course be a potentially devastating revelation for the conservative Moore, already under fire for dating (and allegedly sexually assaulting) teenagers.

According to the Post, "In a series of interviews over two weeks, the woman [Jaime T. Phillips] shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15. During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore's candidacy if she went public. The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists. Monday morning, Post reporters saw her walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups. The organization sets up undercover ‘stings' that involve using false cover stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias."

The Post reporter, Beth Reinhard, "explained to Phillips that her claims would have to be fact-checked. Additionally, Reinhard asked her for documents that would corroborate or support her story." Reinhard and the Washington Post did not ask for evidence to establish the truth of Phillips's account because they doubted that sexual assaults occur, or that Phillips may indeed have been sexually assaulted by Moore--in fact quite the opposite, since the Post was the first to break the story and publish accusations by Moore's accusers--but instead because they were doing their due diligence as journalists. Investigative journalists and skeptics don't question claims and ask for evidence because they necessarily doubt what they're being told; they do it because they want to be sure they understand the facts.

Had The Washington Post not questioned the story--or been deterred by accusations that trying to establish the truth of Phillips's claims was some sort of "distraction" tactic--the paper's credibility would have been damaged when Phillips's false accusation would have quickly been revealed, and the Post's failure to do basic research used to cast doubt on the previous women's accusations against Moore. Martin Baron, the Post's executive editor, said that the false accusations were "the essence of a scheme to deceive and embarrass us. The intent by Project Veritas clearly was to publicize the conversation if we fell for the trap. Because of our customary journalistic rigor, we weren't fooled."

What Happened?

There are several critical thinking and media literacy failures here. Perhaps the most basic is where the burden of proof lies: with the person making the claim. In fact I wasn't making a claim at all; I was merely asking for evidence of a widely-reported claim. I honestly had no idea how many or how few Tribune readers had complained about Jefferson, and I wouldn't have even thought to question it if Gillespie hadn't issued a tweet that contradicted the thesis of the then-viral news story.

The black Santa outrage story is full of assumptions, mostly about the bad intentions of other people. To the best of my knowledge I'm the only person who dug deeper into the story to uncover what really happened--and for that I was told that I was causing a "distraction" and even hints that I had some unspecified unseemly motive.

It's also important to understand why a person's questions are being challenged in the first place. It's often due to tribalism and a lack of charity. CSCIOP cofounder Ray Hyman, in his influential short piece titled "Proper Criticism discusses eight principles including the principle of charity. "The principle of charity implies that, whenever there is doubt or ambiguity about a paranormal claim, we should try to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the claimant until we acquire strong reasons for not doing so. In this respect, we should carefully distinguish between being wrong and being dishonest. We often can challenge the accuracy or validity of a given paranormal claim. But rarely are we in a position to know if the claimant is deliberately lying or is self-deceived. Furthermore, we often have a choice in how to interpret or represent an opponent's arguments. The principle tell us to convey the opponent's position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner."

To scientists, journalists, and skeptics, asking for evidence is an integral part of the process of parsing fact from fiction, true claims from false ones. If you want me to believe a claim--any claim, from advertising claims to psychic powers, conspiracy theories to the validity of repressed memories--I'm going to ask for evidence. It doesn't mean I think (or assume) you're wrong or lying, it just means I want a reason to believe what you tell me. This is especially true for memes and factoids shared on social media and designed to elicit outrage or scorn.

But to most people who don't have a background in critical thinking, journalism, skepticism, or media literacy, asking for evidence is akin to a challenge to their honesty. Theirs is a world in which personal experience and anecdote are self-evidently more reliable than facts and evidence. And it's also a world in which much of the time when claims are questioned, it's in the context of confrontation. To a person invested in the truth of a given narrative, any information that seems to confirm that idea is much more easily seen and remembered than information contradicting the idea; that's the principle of confirmation bias. Similarly, when a person shares information on social media it's often because they endorse the larger message or narrative, and they get upset if that narrative is questioned or challenged. From a psychological point of view, this heuristic is often accurate: Much or most of the time when a person's statement or claim is challenged (in informal settings or social media for example), the person asking the question does indeed have a vested interest.

The problem is when the person does encounter someone who is sincerely trying to understand an issue or get to the bottom of a question, their knee-jerk reaction is often to assume the worst about them. They are blinded by their own biases and they project those biases on others. This is especially true when the subject is controversial, such as with race, gender, or politics. To them, the only reason a person would question a claim is if they are trying to discredit that claim, or a larger narrative it's being offered in support of.

Of course that's not true; people should question all claims, and especially claims that conform to their pre-existing beliefs and assumptions; those are precisely the ones most likely to slip under the critical thinking radar and become incorporated into your beliefs and opinions. I question claims from across the spectrum, including those from sources I agree with. To my mind the other approach has it backwards: How do you know whether to believe a claim if you don't question it?

My efforts to research and understand this story were borne not of any doubt that racism exists, nor that Jefferson was subjected to it, but instead of a background in media literacy and a desire to reconcile two contradictory accounts about what happened. Outrage-provoking stories on social media--especially viral ones based on a single, unconfirmed informal tweet-- should concern all of us in this age of misinformation and "fake news." 

The real tragedy in this case is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America's first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for bringing hope, love, and peace to girls and boys, he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred.

The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort this holiday season. A few anonymous cranks, trolls, and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash--and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.

The true story of Jefferson's stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America's first black Santa. I understand that "Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone" isn't a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it's the truth--and the truth matters.